24 Feb 2011

Libya: PM ‘sorry’ for evacuation delay as Britons head home


David Cameron apologises for the delay rescuing Brits stranded in Libya as Channel 4 News learns that the Government only placed a firm order for the charter flight on Wednesday morning.

Libya: Britons finally evacuated as HMS Cumberland arrives (MOD library)

David Cameron has said he is “extremely sorry” for the delays to the Government’s efforts to rescue British nationals stranded in Libya.

Amid heavy criticism of the Foreign Office’s slow response, the Prime Minister said: “What I want to say to those people is I am extremely sorry.

“It is a very difficult picture in Libya. This is not an easy situation.”

Several planes have now landed in the UK from Libya and the HMS Cumberland has left Benghazi on its way to Malta with 68 British people on board.

The Foreign Office said that, in all, it had helped more than 350 British nationals leave Libya on Thursday as the rescue operation finally got underway. More aircraft will be sent tomorrow “as necessary” and the UK is now drawing up plans with Nato allies to rescue people stuck on isolated oil camps in the desert.

A spokesman said they were also aware of 42 Britons on a US ferry in Tripoli harbour. It was not clear when the vessel was planning to sail but the Britons were being advised to remain aboard as the route to the airport was unsafe.

The Government has faced intense criticism over its Libya rescue operation, which was hampered yesterday after its first chartered rescue flight broke down at Gatwick and was delayed for 10 hours.

‘Astonishing failure’

Channel 4 News Political Correspondent Cathy Newman reported that a senior official at the Foreign Office had told her that there had been an “astonishing failure to deliver” by the company which provides the Government with charter flights.

“Ministers had been promised two planes yesterday – one in Gatwick, another in Malta,” she said. “But just a few hours later, they were flabbergasted to learn there was a problem with the insurance on the one in Malta, while the one in Gatwick had developed technical problems.”

But Cathy Newman was told that the Government had only placed a firm order for a charter flight at 9.30 on Wendesday morning. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, had been described as “furious”, she added.

The Prime Minister has convened a special meeting of the Government’s National Security Council for Friday – and has ordered his deputy – Nick Clegg – to return from a ski-ing holiday to attend.

Interviewed on Channel 4 News, Mr Hague said that there had been three aircraft meant to fly to Libya on Wednesday.

“They all turned out to be either unwilling or unable to do so,” he said.

“I was pretty angry – and even angrier if what you said was the case. But there was more than one aircraft that should have gone in yesterday and – for a variety of reasons – they didn’t.”

He said he did not believe that what Channel 4 News had been told was “an accurate piece of information”.

Mr Hague also promised to look into the case of Richard Foscolo, who has been stranded with other oil workers in the Libyan desert.

Mr Foscolo’s wife, Angharad, told Channel 4 News that she had not been able to speak to her husband for 30 hours, but had been told that he may have been flown into Tripoli by a pilot who had heard reports of his plight. But she said no-one had contacted her from the Foreign Office to offer help.

“Everybody is talking about what a complete fiasco the whole relief exercise has been,” she said. “There are obviously people stuck in Libya. Why, when Britain has one of the best armed forces in the world, are we the last to react?”

Channel 4 News Live Blog: Libya crisis - civil war looms as flights sent for Britons
Libya crisis: Libyans protest against Gaddafi (Reuters)

Situation in Libya

The situation in Libya remains precarious. Anti-Gaddafi militias have seized towns near Tripoli, and the White House said President Barack Obama would be calling Mr Cameron and French President Nicholas Sarkozy to discuss possible international measures to compel the Libyan regime to end the violence against the protesters.

Gaddafi called state television to state his continuing defiance as passengers landing at Gatwick spoke of their relief to be home as they described the “hellish” scenes they had encountered in Libya.

Helena Sheehan, 66, said she had just experienced “some of the worst hours of her life”.

She said: “Libya is descending into hell. The airport is like nothing I’ve ever seen in my whole life. It’s absolute chaos. There’s just thousands and thousands of people trying to get out.”

An RAF C130 Hercules aircraft was also sent into Tripoli to aid the evacuation – it is taking 51 Britons to Malta.

The Foreign Office said a second C130 was also being deployed.

'They feel like sitting ducks' 
Thomas Lydon's brother, Benjamin, managed to get on a US boat in Tripoli harbour - but the boat is now stuck due to the bad weather, and the family are "very worried" about him.

Mr Lydon told Channel 4 News: "The weather means the boat cannot leave for Malta. We're very worried - he's 100 metres away from the main streets in Tripoli.

"The Foreign Office basically told me it could be worse, and I understand that he's not in the centre, but as he says they are sitting ducks. He's an Arabic speaker and he's very calm - but he sounded really worried."

Mr Lydon said that his 22-year old brother, who works as a translator in the financial services sector in Libya, had been given conflicting advice.

"He says there are 42 British nationals on the boat that the Foreign Office don't know about. An Embassy official told him to go to the harbour, and when my father called the Foreign Office, they asked who had told him to do that. It's just a shambles. We're really worried and he's been told he will be on the boat for another day at least.

"We just would say 'get him home'. But we're not holding our breath after this shambles. We just hope the weather improves and he can get home."

The Foreign Office said it is now aware of the Brits on board.
Graphics - Libya

Emergency meeting

Foreign Secretary Hague has chaired a meeting of the Government’s Cobra emergency committee. After the meeting, Defence Secretary Liam Fox said flying Britons home was the Government’s priority.

“We have used military assets to assist that and make sure we can get more of our citizens out more quickly and that will continue throughout the day,” he said.

The potential impact of the Libya crisis on British motorists was underlined by Energy Secretary Chris Huhne’s attendance at the Cobra meeting.

Experts say the deepening turmoil in the oil-rich Arab state could add 5p to a litre of unleaded at UK petrol pumps within weeks.

Mr Huhne joined Mr Hague, Dr Fox and Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards at the meeting.